Simón Mesa Soto’s “Amparo,” which world premiered Monday in Cannes’ Critics’ Week, is both the portrait of its complex protagonist of the same name and a frightening thriller that over two days follows a desperate mother trying to save her son from forced military service. Mesa Soto, winner of the Palme d’Or for short film with “Leidi” in 2014, spoke to Variety about his feature.

Set in Colombia in the late 1990s, an era of turmoil for the country whose consequences are deeply entrenched in today’s social unrest, Mesa Soto sharply observes a corrupt and patriarchal system through the experience of one of so many mother’s — including the director’s own — who powerlessly see how their children are drafted for a seemingly never ending war, a war that as one of the soldiers acknowledges “is fought by the poor.”

Lensed by Juan Sarmiento G., the clean cut design of the film contrasts with the harsh reality in which it is set, as Mesa Soto uses Amparo’s story as a synecdoche of a larger social condition that ails the Latin American country. Amparo, played by a dynamic Sandra Melissa Torres, struggles not only with the male driven institution to whom her son is merely another uniform, but the whole context that surrounds her and her children, often grossly unempathetic and judgmental.

The film is produced by Ocultimo and Momento Film with the aid of FDC Proimagenes, the Swedish Film Institute and the Goethe Institute.

Variety interviewed Mesa Soto before the premiere.

The film narrates through an outstandingly precise camera that smoothly moves and frames almost completely avoiding any handheld camera. What was your concept when designing the camera movement?

Juan and I have been working together for eight years; he is both producer and cinematographer. Through our last two short films we’ve developed an aesthetic affinity that — although it is always subject to the story of the characters — results in a very formal cinema. Is very stylized in terms of where to put the camera and find the right shot. It’s a complex process to choreograph and stage between actors and camera. We came with a very detailed shot list but everything relies heavily on the actress’ work, Sandra led the camera in a way and often this meant very long choreographed shots where she had to maintain her energy and rhythm right across.

That precision in movement translates to an equally precise framing that narrates not only through its composition but what is left off screen. Could you comment? 

In our last short film, “Mother,” I approach the story through the portrayal of the main character. In a way “Amparo” is an evolution of that short film, both in the idea of a portrait and what is left off screen. At its core our goal was to converge that realistic view, more akin to documentary, with a far more formal staging, deeply concerned with the shot, with what is seen and not, giving immense value to the image. We wanted a film more attuned to classic filmmaking, the likes of Kieslowski or Bergman. A type of cinema that never really existed in our history. We had some great filmmakers but they were few and far between. So we tried to make a film that could come from a past era, not really following the contemporary canons.

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Amparo Credit: Juan Sarmiento G.

You had a six-year hiatus coming off the momentum of “Leidi.” How was the development of the film? 

I felt sometimes like I was in an agonizing process. To be a filmmaker in Colombia one has to be very stubborn. I can imagine in many other parts of the world it’s the same, but here even if there is the support of some institutions sometimes it doesn’t feel it is enough. Which results in many films having to handle a very low budget, which affects the results one way or another. After having done well with the last short films, I imagined the process of financing the film would be at least a bit easier. It wasn’t at all. It came to the point where we decided to shoot with what we had because we were going to lose the funds that we had already won. It’s a process that requires a lot of stamina, emotional and economical stability. It’s a growing industry with more and more newcomers but that often feels as one is opening a path in the middle of the jungle.

It’s impossible not to read your film through the frame of the national strike that over the last months has left dozens of civilians killed by the police, who were aided by the military. “Amparo” depicts an event that most Colombians experience and a period whose echoes deeply resound in what is shaping up to be a historical event for the country. Could you comment?

I believe Colombia has grown since its origins through non viable ways, that with the arrival of drug trafficking reinforced and deepened even further the state absence that was already there. What is now going on is a sad awakening, a needed one but nevertheless tragic, that has cost many lives and suffering, and follows a social and generational change. We are finally questioning a political sphere that for many decades has been controlling the conversation. There is a clear sense of inconformity in the new generations and the violent events of the last months have only sparked it further. I am also part of that social unrest and “Amparo” is very much a political film putting a systemic violence as background to an experience my own mother lived.